The small, now defunct, local authority at which I started my career had a room termed “the bunker”; a veritable treasure trove of dusty government papers, untouched by data laws, hidden behind large metal locked doors. For young apprentices like me, a shift in the bunker was like some sort of initiation. It was here we found old sets of 1970s committee minutes.
How strange it was to read, in typeset, of the women secretaries tendering their resignations because they were getting married. From our vantage point of hindsight we laughed at their predicament as only young ambitious women privileged with opportunity can.
My mum used to tell me that as a child all she wanted was a typewriter, but she believed in Santa Claus so much that she didnt tell anybody, and so year after year, her wish never came true. As a child of the 1950s, born to a generation older than the parents of her peers (my grandad was 53 when she was born), she was an unusual mix of modern and traditional. Although intelligent and gifted, she worked from home as a mobile hairdresser until I was around 8, baking homemade egg custards and hand sewing our clothes.
My research into unemployment has uncovered some fascinating stories, in particular the story of Singer outlined in “Falling from Grace” by . For women of the past who gave up work to get married, their prized wedding present was a sewing machine by the top brand, Singer. It’s factories in Port Elizabeth, New York and Clydebank in Glasgow provided work for tens of thousands of local people. In a spiralling descent,as demand declined attempts to improve productivity destroyed the pride and familial working relationships that had made the brand great. By the 1980s its factories were gone, decimating community ties and leaving a legacy of mass unemployment.
For many that gap has never been filled and those people aren’t swallowing the neoliberal political narrative that we’ve off shored those dirty, hard jobs in the name of progress. They’ve lost a sense of commitment, pride and security that previous generations promised them. Manual jobs are constructed as “unskilled” and the unemployed (including stay at home parents) are tarred with the same “lazy scrounger” brush. The belief that “any job is better than no job” means low unemployment figures hide a dearth of people just scraping by.
The Welsh town showered with EU money yet still voted out is clear case in point. They don’t want the shiny new sports centre and shops, they want the return of the heavy industry that defined them. In communities across the country it’s the same story, be it ship building (Hartlepool), car manufacturing or coal mining. The destruction of British firms that “made this country great”, and could have been our means to self-reliance, started a long long time ago. Most of us may wish to confine those times to the bunker, to be occasionally wheeled out to laugh at how crazy they were; but for some, that was the best period of their lives.
I voted for Remain for lots of reasons. I believe we’re better together, that to leave will cost astronomical amounts of money we don’t have and personally (doesn’t everyone vote personally) things were good for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t think things need to change.
(N.B. The photograph is my mum as a little girl in the 1950s being held by her sister on her wedding day. My auntie gave up her job as a secretary to start a family).